“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
One glorious spring day, I was on a field trip with a group of middle school youth, venturing a short way down the Florida National Scenic Trail.
We were aiming for a small swimming hole about a mile in on a new section of the trail, but about halfway there, we heard and then saw an arresting sight up ahead: two large Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes who, upon hearing us come around the bend, had coiled their considerable bulk and were making a bone-chilling noise with their impressive tails, their heads held aloft half a foot off the ground. We felt awed and chastened to have encountered them. Still, after waiting in vain for ten minutes for them to move on, we turned and went back the way we came, intending to find an alternative route to the spring.
But the alternative path we chose was through a section of grass that, while free of venomous serpents, was full of very large, very sharp sand spurs — a fact that we somehow missed until our whole group was a ways in.
We could see the main path to the swimming hole ahead, but we had to pick our way through the spurs to get there. Behind us, of course, were the rattlesnakes. In the midst of our homegrown Scylla and Charybdis, what did the youth do? They started playing.
A few of the more athletic youth sprinted ahead, and then jeer-cheered the rest of us on as they picked the spurs from their socks and skin. As one made her way out of the pokey grass, she joyfully tossed her tennis shoes to a classmate wearing flip-flops. A few held hands in a vertical line and danced their way through, the first saving the two behind her from the brunt of the burrs.
Neurochemically, panic and euphoria are kissing cousins. Blessed are the magic-makers — often our children and youth, and some lucky adults who retain the charm—who can transmute one to the other in the most unexpected and needed moments.
Gods, thank you for mirth, for merry-making, for jokes and laughter and silliness. Help us to not forget that playfulness is one of your favorite tools.